Officials: Take proper precautions around old cisterns, wells

A deadly incident that happened in Bastrop County highlights the importance of taking proper precautions when it comes to old cisterns and wells.

In August, three people and a dog that fell into a cistern died after being overcome by toxic fumes. 

"That system may have been there 100 years with stagnation building over the years, and no telling what's blowing in there, what animals could crawl in there and die," said Bastrop County Sheriff Maurice Cook at a press conference following the incident. 

The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation regulates wells, not cisterns, but the incident in Bastrop County brings to the surface the potential dangers of both. 

"It's possible that there are thousands and thousands of abandoned and deteriorating water wells in Texas," said Tela Mange, spokesperson for TDLR. 

One concern is personal safety.

"We want to make sure that if there are abandoned water wells on someone's property, that those get capped and that they get covered in a way that's going to make sure that no one can fall in," said Mange.

Another concern is groundwater contamination. 

"If a water well has deteriorated enough, then pollutants could enter the drinking water for people around that area. If there is runoff, say, from cows or other animals... or there could be a lot of fertilizer for some reason, that's making its way into the abandoned well," said Mange. "A lot of people depend on well water in Texas and especially now when we haven't gotten a lot of rain. You don't want what little is there left in the ground to be undrinkable." 

It is the responsibility of the landowner to either plug an abandoned well or hire a licensed professional, according to Texas Administrative Code.

If a landowner chooses to plug the well themselves, it must align with TDLR’s well plugging standards. A report must also be submitted to TDLR within 30 days. 

Landowners with a working well should install a locking well cap or sanitary well seal as a safety measure. 

Landowners who are unsure if there are wells on their property can look for pieces of pipe that may be above ground, concrete or brick casing or a windmill with missing blades. 


Non-landowners can also help. 

"Dove season recently started and then deer hunting season will be starting out pretty soon," said Mange. "If you're out, and you're walking the property, and you see, you know, a hole in the ground, or you see a PVC pipe sticking up…keep an eye out, take a picture, figure out where that is and report that to TDLR so that we can contact the landowner." 

When filing a report with TDLR, include an address or GPS coordinates, photos and videos if possible.

"In our county, I've been told there are places that have had houses that are no longer there that sometimes leave wells behind, leave cisterns," said Sheriff Cook. "And the only thing we can hope for is the landowner will cover those, so something like this would not happen again in the future. It's not worth three lives."

Click here for a helpful guide to plugging wells. For more information on technical guidance on abandoned or deteriorated water wells, click here.

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